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Jack Latvala's campaign launch bogged down by Charlottesville

Jack Latvala, Florida's newest Republican candidate for governor, struggled Wednesday to fully blame the deadly violence that took place during a Charlottesville rally over the weekend on white supremacists.

Latvala formally launched his 2018 bid in Hialeah with a moment of silence for the 32-year-old woman and two state troopers who died in Virginia. But he later declined to lay all responsibility for their deaths on the racist neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan groups that staged two days of demonstrations.

"I wasn't there," Latvala, a state senator from Clearwater, told reporters. "I condemn all violence of people that are protesting. If people are peacefully exercising their rights — whether they be, you know, white supremacists, or whether they be Black Lives Matter folks — you know, they have a right to demonstrate without having a mob attack them."

The three dead were "innocent," he said. Pressed on whether he was equating neo-Nazis with the Black Lives Matter activists, Latvala added: "No, I'm not supporting Nazis."

Latvala also said he did not see President Donald Trump's extraordinary news conference Tuesday in which the president appeared to put white supremacists and those who protested them on the same moral plane.

"I've been focused on what Jack Latvala's doing. I don't know what you're even talking about," he said. "I denounced [white supremacists] and all of us — Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, all of us that look at these things responsibly — denounced it. So, specifically what he said yesterday, I can't comment unless I saw it."

Latvala's Charlottesville exchange with reporters came moments after a campaign-launch speech in which he portrayed himself as the straight-talk candidate.

"I may not be the young candidate for governor. I may not be the best-looking candidate for governor," he said. "I'm not the most physically fit candidate for governor, and I'm probably not even the smartest candidate for governor. But I will be the candidate who tells it to you straight, who if he gives you his word, will keep my word."

Latvala's event, held under the blazing August sun that hit the parking lot of Hialeah's Fire Station No. 7, might have been confused for a rally in support of a Democrat instead of a Republican. With two fire trucks behind him, Latvala stood flanked by members of local fire and police unions. There was also a robust contingent of members from the state labor union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1363. Latvala helped pushed through the first raise for state employees in 11 years.

"We believe that we should say thank you," said Mark McCullough, a union spokesman. "If you separate it from Republican and Democrat and you just think about Jack Latvala, it's not so weird. He's got a record and history, especially the past few sessions, of standing up for state workers."

Latvala insisted he considers himself a conservative, not a moderate. But he noted a Democrat in the audience —former state Sen. Ron Silver of Miami Beach, who had a Tallahassee history of backing Republicans. And Latvala didn't need to label his politics: His friends made his centrist pitch for him.

"He's not the far right. He's not the far left," said John Rivera, president of the Miami-Dade County Police Benevolent Association. "He's right down the middle. Mainstream America needs people like Jack Latvala."

Also backing Latvala were state Sen. René García and former state Sen. Roberto Casas, both Hialeah Republicans who said they appreciated Latvala's deference to their overwhelmingly Hispanic city, a favorite among GOP candidates in the middle of blue Miami-Dade, the state's largest county — with the biggest number of registered Republicans. True to Hialeah form, attendees were greeted with pastelitos, croquetas and Cuban coffee.

"It's one of the most Republican cities in the state," García said. "It shows his commitment not only to Hialeah, but to Miami-Dade County."

Latvala argued he has the right mix of political and business experience to run the state. He's long run a political printing company.

Gov. Rick Scott deserves "a lot of credit" for Florida's improved economy, Latvala said. But in an indirect jab to the Republican governor, he also noted 36 counties have lost job during Scott's tenure, and said the state ranks far too low in mental-health spending and too high in opioid-linked deaths.

He also emphasized he has no higher ambitions past the Governor's Mansion, as opposed to governors "in office to get to the next office, to be U.S. senator or to be president." Scott is expected to challenge U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson next year.

And Latvala poked at the only other big-name Republican in the race so far: Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam of Bartow, a former congressman. House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O'Lakes and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach might also run.

"We've had too many career politicians make decisions for us," he said. "I'll be damned if I'm going to let Tallahassee become like Washington D.C."